TCR Talks with Steve Almond
By: Kaia Gallagher
Described by commentators as funny, big-hearted and joyfully obsessive, Steve Almond has been a newspaper reporter, an acclaimed writer of short stories, an essayist and the author of ten books over his twenty-year writing career.
Almond’s published short story collections include My Life in Heavy Metal (2002), The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories (2005), God Bless America: Stories (2011), and Whits of Passion (2013). Many of his 150 short stories have been featured in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mysteries, the Pushcart Prize, and Best American Erotica.
An insightful commentator on American life, Almond’s best-selling 2004 book,
Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, has been described by reviewers as part candy porn, part polemic, part social history and part confession. A creative stylist, Almond blends memoir, journalistic reporting, and cultural critique to explain why he can no longer watch his favorite sport in his 2014 book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.
Almond’s essay collection, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, examines the outcome of the 2016 presidential election through the lens of literature, combining statistical data, personal anecdote, cultural criticism, literary analysis and what Almond describes as “outright intellectual theft.” The essays suggest that even though bad or untruthful stories can explain the current state of our politics, the narratives we tell ourselves can also be our salvation.
Almond continues his investigation of America’s soul in his newest book, William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, published in June of 2019 in which he comments on his struggles as a writer, husband, and father, and as a man grappling with his own mortality.
A columnist, podcaster, teacher and social critic, Almond has published his essays and reviews in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. More information regarding Almond’s latest book can be found on his website: stevealmondjoy.org.
In this TCR interview, he shares his views on the writing process and the role of writers in today’s cultural and political environment.
The Coachella Review: In your book, This Won’t Take but a Minute, Honey, you urge writers to strive for a dogged pursuit of the truth rather than adopting a self-conscious writing style. You have also described writing as a process of intuitive decision-making that requires having a “bullshit detector.” How can a writer assure that his or her authentic voice is emerging on the page?
Steve Almond: Gosh. That’s the key question, isn’t it? I don’t have a simple answer. I can only say that I’ve done best when I try to tell the truth about the stuff that matters to me most deeply, when I stop trying to be a WRITER (noun) and simply focus on WRITING (verb). I do think that developing a critical faculty is part of that process, because it allows you to refine and improve your decisions without getting into the ego drama of AM I GOOD ENOUGH TO TELL THIS STORY? AM I INTERESTING? IS THE READER BORED? That sort of insecurity shifts the writer’s attention from the story to their own doubts, which are real, but which also lead to all sorts of forced, inorganic decisions. Confusing scenes. Overwrought prose. So the most we can hope to do as writers is to manage those feelings of doubt and try to focus our attention on the yearnings and struggles that led us to the story.
TCR: Writing from your perspective is all about decision-making relative to word choice, sentence structure and narrative pacing. What are the strategies that can help writers to maintain a balance between focusing on the words on the page while at the same time being aware of the story design that is emerging?
SA: These are such great questions, by which I mean really complicated and difficult. And again, I’m not going to offer much help here, because I’m often writing by the seat of my pants, not planning or outlining enough. What I will say is that recently I’ve begun to focus more on establishing a firm sense of character before I plunge into the story. Why? Because once you know what your character fears and/or desires, you’re more than halfway to a plot. You know where the danger is, and where the story has to go. Beyond that, I’m lousy at planning.
TCR: You have warned that when writers plod, readers get impatient, while if they rush, readers can feel left behind. As writers seek to develop their story-telling skills, how can they learn to judge whether a scene is moving the plot along or not?
SA: A lot of this is intuitive, but it’s not mystical. A scene should serve a purpose beyond providing background or context. It should deepen our understanding of the characters, initiate or escalate conflict, and/or trigger further action. The best scenes do all this work simultaneously. And writers should be asking themselves whether their scenes are doing this work. Stories shouldn’t just be, “This happened then this happened then this happened.” There should be a causal relationship. “This happened and therefore this happened and because of that this happened…”
TCR: Relative to revision, your advice to writers is that they recognize that every word should count. What is your own process for revising what you have written? In your experience, how many revisions does it take to distill a text so that it consists of exactly the right words?
SA: There’s no set rule on the number of revisions. Some stories come out more easily. I guess they’ve been stewing in my subconscious. Or I find some compelling desire that helps pull me through the story without getting self-conscious. Other stories feel more exploratory, and require far more drafting. The key question in revision is to ask of every word and sentence and paragraph: What work does it do? And to be brutal about how you answer. The reader needs the rate of revelation to be high. Simply writing a beautiful sentence isn’t enough. The sentence has to deepen the danger of the story.
TCR: In the thirteen stories within your new collection, God Bless America, you focus on themes of disappointment, desperation, hope and the pursuit of happiness. What are your sources of inspiration for the life stories you chose to write about?
SA: Thanks for making God Bless America sound so uplifting! 😉 As for sources of inspiration, those often feel kind of random on a conscious level. I notice a particularly strange and desperate TSA worker, or get told a story by a poker buddy. But those stories snag in my mind because there’s some unconscious preoccupation I’m trying to work through. In the case of GBA, a lot of the stories wound up being focused on mothers who were put through hell by their sons. No surprise there: that’s the story of my family.
TCR: In your recent book Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, you have argued that Trumpism has arisen from the bad stories that we have told ourselves or to which we have given our consent. Are you hopeful that truth-based stories can successfully compete with the false narratives that have become so common in today’s media environment?
SA: We’re going to find out. But here’s where I stand on all this: anguish is understandable. Action is required. Americans of good faith have to stop waiting for someone else to rescue the country. It’s on us. If you want to know whether we’ll return to values of decency and policies grounded in compassion, ask yourself one question: What am I doing to make that happen? Honestly, that’s the only question that matters. I spent the 2018 midterm election doing fundraising workshops all across the country. And a lot of other people got more politically active. And the result was a clear repudiation of the current regime, its fear mongering and corruption. I’m going to be working my ass off in 2020. What are you going to be doing?
TCR: Arguing that narrative is the fundamental context of reality, you have said that it is only through the patient interrogation of false stories that we can begin to understand where we are and how we got here. What are the types of stories that need to be told? How can writers create a more compassionate view regarding the issues that are impacting the current state of our country?
SA: Writers aren’t political agents, but they are moral actors. Our job, as writers, is to make people feel more than they did before they read our stories. But writers are also citizens, and that means if they want a better outcome to the American story, they have to work as citizens to make that happen. It’s not enough simply to hate-watch the demise of our country.
TCR: You have said that your new book, William Stoner and the Battle for Inner Life, addresses how literature might save our lives. In what ways does the story of William Stoner offer life lessons for today’s times?
SA: The essential lesson of the book is that seeking attention from the world matters a lot less than paying attention to your own life. By the standards of history, or Facebook, William Stoner is a nobody. He doesn’t do anything “heroic” by our current standards, doesn’t seize power or vanquish enemies or find a great love. But he’s heroic for the simple reason that he bears witness to his own life, to the quiet moments of yearning and fear and ecstasy that all of us experience. We’ve gotten very confused as a people, and the state of our politics is part of that confusion. The yearning to be known by the world is a dead end, morally, spiritually, and emotionally. We should seek to know ourselves. That’s why art, and literary art in particular, exists.
TCR: Who are the writers that you admire and what is it about their writing that inspires you?
SA: John Williams, obviously, for the restraint of his style and the fearless exploration of Stoner’s inner life. Jane Austen always blows me away. She’s such a badass when it comes to exposing the folly of her people, the delusions that keep them from contentment. I’d put Lorrie Moore into the same category. I love the criticism of my friend William Giraldi. His mind is among the most powerful of our age. I love the poetry of Matthew Zapruder, another pal. Charles D’Ambrosio and Joan Didion and Nora Ephron write essays that make me feel the pulse of their heart and minds, and the same is true of Cheryl Strayed and David Foster Wallace. I could go on and on. And on.
TCR: What is the advice you would give to those who are hoping to make writing a career?
SA: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Do a self-inventory of your life and figure out how to make writing a sustainable part of your life. Also: please, to the extent possible, uncouple artistic creation from financial expectation. Those two should not be dating. They shouldn’t even be working in the same office.
Kaia Gallagher is working on a memoir called Return to Estonia, which explores her connection to her Estonian heritage. She is an MFA graduate at the University of California–Riverside’s Low Residency program.